“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

– Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.




10 responses

26 02 2014
Anne Corner

When I was in college a lot of students never saw a “real” professor up close and personalö before their junior year. Lower level courses were either 500 person lectures or taught by TA’s. I actually think most MOOC’s are more intimate than that. Has university education changed so much that the scenario I describe is no longer true?

26 02 2014

Yes, it has, or at least your experience was exceptional.

26 02 2014
Steve Phillips

There is an argument here that I’ve seen other places, and don’t really understand. You say the problem with MOOCs is that no matter what “technological doo-dad” they invest in to stimulate student interaction, students either can’t or won’t use them in a meaningful way. Even if they did, you say, the infrastructure could not support it.

Meanwhile, even though a lot of institutions have large lectures with minimal student interactions, they have “TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems.” And this makes everything better than the MOOC experience. What about students who can’t or won’t use those resources? And what if every student in a 1000 person Intro to Communications course showed up for their professor’s office hours? Would the infrastructure at a traditional university support that?

Institutions have already oversold and overscaled the higher ed experience, and profited from it for years. Why is it so much worse when MOOC providers do the same?

26 02 2014
Jonathan Rees

The response to that is easy, Steve. Universities have an interest in the success of their students. If the professor isn’t directly available to help, there are many other resources on campus that you can be forced to use or else you’ll be going home next semester. MOOC providers only have an interest in collecting eyeballs.

26 02 2014
Steve Phillips

I think based on the tragically low college persistence rates across the country, you can make the argument that universities aren’t as interested in student success as they could be. In terms of students being “forced” to use resources, I’m not sure what you mean by that. What does that look like in practice?

26 02 2014

One of the many things it looks like in practice is what my institution calls an SAP, a Satisfactory Academic Progress plan. The struggling student meets with an advisor, makes a concrete and detailed plan that involves a commitment to meet regularly with tutors, mental health counselors, or whatever, and then signs it before their financial aid can be released.

I don’t know how they did things at the schools you were unfortunate enough to attend, but at my own modest little 4-year public we have extremely low tuition (about $5K per year), a student-faculty ratio of about 17:1, and very few classes of more than 36 students. Most junior and senior level classes have fewer than 20 students, often fewer than ten. We have LOTS of close interaction with our students. Faculty salaries (in the humanities) start around $41K.

Figures like these rarely make it into MOOC-ish conversations, yet oddly enough they are not atypical of a type of school that educates millions of American students. Instead “traditional education” tends to be represented by MOOCsters as a weird fantasy that mixes the tuition of Sarah Lawrence College, the class sizes of Gargantuan State U, the faculty salaries of Harvard, the teaching loads of an R-1 graduate school, and the dropout rates of a community college in the Bronx. Topping off this rhetorical construct is the greatest outrage of them all, the infamous rock-climbing wall.

As for this this — “based on the tragically low college persistence rates across the country, you can make the argument that universities aren’t as interested in student success as they could be” — well, you could make that argument, but you’d be laughed at by people in possession of the facts.

26 02 2014
Mark Smith

To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s access got to do with it?” For the community college courses that I teach students have all kinds of access to me, but they have no interest in taking advantage of it. In that respect, my classes might as well be MOOCs. The better word is interaction. My live lectures are interactive such that I can relate to the students according to their responses, interests, questions, and levels of ability. A recorded lecture can’t do that. I can manipulate the lecture, and by extension, the class to engage them on a cognitive level that a recording, even with a pause button, can’t do. If you want to see dead people, watch a student watching a recorded lecture.

26 02 2014

For a while now I think we’ve fallen into a polarising discussion of the worst on campus experience (huge classes, no interaction with professor) and the worst online experiences (huge classes, no interaction with professor). This isn’t really where things are now.

What has crept over us like a fog during this time is blanket coverage of edtech innovation that ignores or automates even the prospect of human intervention that education represents. Here in Australia we are in the middle of our national peak body conference on the future of our higher education system, which opened with a panel on MOOCs, followed by a keynote dinner speech from our Minister encouraging us towards the “online frontier”. All of this talk is actively reframing education as information.

As educators, our urgent task is to think very critically both about the systems we created on campus that paved the way for this, and the systems that are being proposed as its solution. Jonathan, your vigilance is so welcome.

26 02 2014

“While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible.” And the eduction offered is still at a great bargaining price. In California students pay $46 per unit at community colleges.

9 03 2014
CASA weekly news | CASA

[…] Academic allies have been speaking up for a while about MOOCs as a labour issue, noticing in particular the use of graduate student TAs who seem to be acting as volunteers in MOOCs as part of doing what they love in the graduate seminar wherever they are.  In the US, historian Jonathan Rees has been a consistent critic of the way the promotion of MOOCs overlooks the actual work of teaching. In a recent post, for example, he responds to an article on the use of AI to create programmable teaching assistants. […]

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